Suits You? Bone Up on Fashion and Costume History at Chelsea Library

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If there’s one thing the area of Chelsea’s renowned for with people from outside London, it’s the district’s connections with fashion. From the bustling Mary Quant- and Biba-led boutiques of the Swinging Sixties through Vivienne Westwood’s punk-ethos store in the ’70s to today’s high-quality, exclusive outlets, Chelsea has for more than half a century been a haven for the creation and vending of fantastic, original and trend-setting fashion.

And, during a visit to the area (while perhaps staying at the likes of the San Domenico House hotel Chelsea), should the mood take you and you fancy discovering some of this fascinating history for yourself, then why not step inside Chelsea’s iconic Old Town Hall building and stroll into the public library housed inside? Why might you want to do this? Because Chelsea’s public library is home to one of the best collections of reading material on the history of fashion and costume you’ll find not just in the UK capital or the country as a whole, but perhaps anywhere at all.

No ordinary library

As a public library, this venue’s general facilities and services include free WiFi; computer services; Internet access; printing; photocopying; study areas; a reading group; books in other languages; health events and a gallery where local people can display and sell artworks they produce.

Yet, what distinguishes it from so many other libraries is that, located here for reference use – and in conjunction with the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in South Kensington – is its substantial and eclectic collection of material covering the fashion and costume world. And, yes, it does truly runs the gamut.

This first-class archive then includes books on topics such as the history of costume from its earliest eras; historical and national dress of different nations (including tribal costume); dress associated with specific events (such as weddings, coronations and festivals); occupational dress; military dress (historical and current); stage costume; 20th Century designers and accessories (i.e. jewellery, fans, shoes, buttons, gloves, hats and glasses).

Check out the stores

It ought to be stressed, however, that the library’s collection is simply too comprehensive to be accessed merely on open shelves. It could well be that, should you be visiting from one of the nearby luxury boutique hotels London and wishing to find something specific in the collection, you’ll first have to ask a member of staff to hunt it down in the library’s copious stores.

For instance, here can be found copies of a vast array of different magazines dedicated to a plethora of fashion eras. Among them are Vogue (issues date back all the way to the 1920s); Vanity Fair; L’Officiel; Tailor and Cutter; Manufacturing Clothier; La Belle Assemblee and even The Ladies’ Cabinet (a periodical from the 19th Century that details contemporary fashion in its day and age).

Happy hunting!

Address: Chelsea Old Town Hall, London, King’s Road SW3 5EZ

Opening hours: 9.30am-8pm Monday-Tuesday and Thursday; 9.30am-5pm Wednesday and Friday-Saturday; 1-5pm Sunday

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